The Dead Sea Scrolls controversy in San Diego

Jesus, Judas, and the Dead Sea Scrolls: peddling religious sensationalism in America (December 10, 2007)

Background: the “public square”

A few days ago, American presidential candidate Mitt Romney gave what was billed as a major address on the “religion” question. Apparently, one of his principal goals was to put Evangelical Christians at ease with his candidacy, and to that end, he took it upon himself to repudiate a key argument made by John F. Kennedy in a famous speech delivered during the 1960 presidental campaign.

Kennedy asserted that a candidate’s “views on religion are his own, private affair,” which should not be “imposed by him upon the nation.” By contrast, Romney declared that religion is not merely “a private affair,” and that “no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people.”

In the course of his mock-Kennedy speech, Romney rehashed the tendentious claim of fundamentalists to the effect that America was founded as a “Christian” nation. Still worse, he sought, as the New York Times put it in an insightful editorial, to reduce the debate over religion to a childishly rigid quarrel between people who believe religion has a place in public life and others who advocate “the elimination of religion from the public square.” (And for a look ahead at where this is going, allow me to put the question from the outset: what is a massive, six-million-dollar museum exhibit, promoted in dozens of newspapers and viewed by 450,000 visitors, if not a “public square”?)

The NY Times editorial sharply exposes the dangers facing our constitutional system of separation of Church and State at a time when Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, has made the religious test “the cornerstone” of his own presidential campaign and when yet another candidate, John McCain, has also declared that America is a “Christian nation.”

What is less commonly perceived, however, is the fact that this threat of a breakdown in our political culture has been accompanied by other, related manifestations. These can be illustrated by examples from three domains: (1) fallacious theoretical discourse about a claimed nexus between science and religion; (2) religiously motivated sensationalism involving two hoaxes initially perpetrated on the National Geographic and Discovery channels, and widely publicized through dozens of other media outlets; and (3) the ongoing scandal involving the cooperation between a major “non-profit” science museum and a “scholarly” monopoly aimed at exploiting the public’s fascination with Christian origins.

“The greatest scientists of the West…”

The science/religion claim was recently illustrated by an article by Dinesh D’Souza, entitled A Christian Foundation and prominently featured as an editorial in USA Today. The article begins by stating that “popular efforts to tuck Christianity neatly aside as a footnote to this country’s history and to deliver a secular society will fail. Why? Because the faith is inextricably tied to our values, our institutions and even modern science.” D’Souza condemns the “aggressive” actions of atheists (represented in a cartoon accompanying the article), and argues that Christianity “has shaped the core institutions and values of the USA and the West,” including even “secular institutions such as democracy and science.”

“Atheist agression” topples American foundations: illustration accompanying D’Souza article in USA Today

Without mentioning, e.g., the brutality of the Spanish Inquisition, the Wars of Religion or the extermination of the American Indians, he adds that Christianity “has fostered in our civilization values such as respect for human dignity, human rights and human equality that even secular people cherish” (my italics). He then focuses in on science, boldly asserting that “Christians were the first ones who envisioned the universe as following laws that reflected the rationality of God the creator.” As if to lend an air of dignity to this offensive argument, he offers us a list of “the greatest scientists of the West.” Here is the complete list as printed in USA Today: Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Boyle, Newton, Leibniz, Gassendi, Pascal, Mersenne, Cuvier, Harvey, Dalton, Faraday, Joule, Lyell, Lavoisier, Priestley, Kelvin, Ampere, Steno, Pasteur, Maxwell, Planck, Mendel, and Lemaitre.

As I read this powerful accumulation of names, I was tempted to add D’Souza to his own list, and to thank him (1) for scientifically informing me that “Gassendi, Mersenne and Lamaitre [sic] were priests,” and (2) for sparing me from having to confront such boring details as the fact that Galileo was arrested by the Catholic Church, charged with heresy, forced to retract his scientific claims under threat of torture and burning at the stake, and then ultimately banished from Florence. At least they let Galileo live, unlike his predecessor Giordano Bruno, another scientist who just happens not to be on D’Souza’s list.

But wait a second. Isn’t there another name missing from the list? What about Albert Einstein? Could it be that he’s not included on the list because he wasn’t Christian? And while we’re at it, what about Darwin and Huxley, is there perhaps a particular reason they’re not on the list? And what about Benjamin Franklin, who said he found Christian dogma “unintelligible,” or Thomas Edison, who said “religion is all bunk”? What about Marie Curie and all the other atheist Nobel laureate scientists listed here?

And moving back to our “core institutions,” what about someone named Abraham Lincoln, and all the other figures listed here? I guess they played only a minor role in the formation of our system of values, because they stood apart from the dogmas of organized Christianity? Here, for example, is one of Lincoln’s statements: “The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession. I could never give assent to the long, complicated statements of Christian dogma.” And here is another one: “My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures have become clearer and stronger with advancing years, and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them.”

Well, who cares about these little details. After all, America is a Christian nation, and USA Today is a newspaper written for Americans, right? D’Souza concludes with the important statement that we must “not hesitate to acknowledge, not only privately but also publicly, the central role that Christianity has played and still plays in the things that matter most to us.” This led me to wonder whether Governer Romney has been reading USA Today.

Bones of Jesus found; Judas goes to heaven

But since we’re on the topic of the public acknowledgment of religion, let’s move on to the religiously motivated sensationalism of several recent media campaigns. Here I will limit myself to two examples. First, the “Lost Tomb of Jesus” scam, massively marketed in televised presentations and dozens of “news” items in the Spring of 2007. The claim being made by hack “archaeologists” was that they had identified the tomb of Jesus and his family (including his wife) in Jerusalem. The only problem with the claim was that it was fraudulent, based on the doubly false assertion that the name “Jesus” (Hebrew “Yehoshua”) had indeed been found scrawled on an ossuary (the name was in fact illegible), and that this would have had some kind of significance if it had been true, even though the common name “Yehoshua” has been found on dozens of ossuaries from that time.

Ultimately, the claim was rejected by numerous scholars, but not before the “documentary” on this “discovery” had earned its makers millions of dollars.  More important than the wrongful profit, however, is the manner in which the media presented the scholarly quarrel occasioned by the fraudulent claim: namely, as a dispute between “secularists” who believe that Jesus was an ordinary person, and devoutly “religious” people who believe that his bones could never have been found because he was resurrected.  No one paused to reflect that the entire claim might have been based on an unscrupulous effort to profit from a prurient, popular, religiously motivated fascination with Jesus.

My second example is the gnostic “Gospel of Judas.” This third-century text had been found in an Egyptian tomb during the 1970’s, and since then had been passed around for years until National Geographic finally got its hands on it and decided to sensationalize it.  They hired a bunch of “bible scholars” who prepared a translation, and then came the shocking revelation: according to this text, Judas didn’t betray Jesus; rather, Jesus asked Judas, his most beloved disciple, to hand him over to be killed, and Judas was rewarded with a place in heaven and exaltation above the other disciples.

This stunning revelation earned National Geographic millions of dollars, but then came the equally stunning revelation, in a New York Times opinion piece by April DeConick (another, but more serious biblical scholar), that the entire thing was a hoax, based on the egregious mistranslation of basic words in the text. For example, the text uses the Greek word “daimon” to refer to Judas. In third-century gnostic circles, this word always meant “demon.” The translators, however, cleverly assigned it the innocuous meaning “spirit” that it has in ancient philosophical texts of Plato and Aristotle.

Interestingly, Dr. DeConick observes that “when National Geographic published its transcription, the facsimiles of the original manuscript it made public were reduced by 56 percent, making them fairly useless for academic work. Without life-size copies, we are the blind leading the blind. The situation reminds me of the deadlock that held scholarship back on the Dead Sea Scrolls decades ago. When manuscripts are hoarded by a few, it results in errors and monopoly interpretations that are very hard to overturn even after they are proved wrong.”

Scholar undone by slur, but “natural history” museum takes pride in Christian-oriented exhibit

Dr. DeConick’s statement about the Dead Sea Scrolls leads me to the third domain in which religiously motivated individuals are violating our basic cultural practices for their own profit. First, we saw the boundary between science and religion questioned; next we saw the mediatized abuse of popular fascination with religion; now we turn to unethical monopolization of ideas in the field of the most widely publicized discovery of ancient manuscripts ever made, here again the aim being to profit (no doubt both financially and otherwise) from popular religious beliefs.

Indeed, what is the San Diego Natural History Museum’s exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls, if not the resurrection, in a somewhat different form, of the same monopoly that collapsed in the midst of scandal around fifteen years ago? Clearly, one group of (mainly Christian) scholars has manipulated this exhibit to pull the wool over the public’s eyes and keep people from learning why an entire series of other researchers have rejected the “Qumran-Essene” theory of scroll origins slavishly followed by the museum. Clearly, as I explained in an earlier item of mine, the museum’s distorted presentation of the evidence gives rise to an appearance of impropriety involving “intellectual antisemitism, an obscurantist, seemingly irrational fear of debate, and biased conduct that is abhorrent to our basic social sentiments and to the principle of freedom of inquiry which lies at the core of our system of values.”

Tragically, the concluding weeks of this biased exhibition have coincided with the death of one of the great icons of traditional scrolls research, Harvard Divinity School professor John Strugnell. Here again, a New York Times article, in the form of an obituary on Strugnell, reminds us of things we like to avoid thinking of. Strugnell, we read, never received a Ph.D., but

was appointed to the faculty of the Harvard Divinity School in 1966, becoming a professor of Christian origins. He was made editor in chief of the scrolls project in 1984. Six years later, at a time when the scrolls team was coming under sharp criticism for its exclusive control over access to the documents and its sluggish pace of publication, he was in Jerusalem and gave an interview to the Tel Aviv newspaper Ha’aretz. As quoted by the newspaper, he said of Judaism: “It’s a horrible religion. It’s Christian heresy, and we deal with our heretics in different ways.” Mr. Strugnell later denied accusations of anti-Semitism, noting that he was the first editor to have included Jewish scholars in the project, which had been dominated by Christians… But the damage was irreparable. He was replaced as the scrolls editor and forced to retire from Harvard.

The Times obituary also carefully states that “scholars consider the Dead Sea Scrolls a reflection of the thinking of Jews during the turbulent period of the beginnings of Rabbinic Judaism and the emergence of Christianity.”  This is quite different from the view expressed by the curator of the San Diego exhibit, who announced in an interview of her own (see my above-linked piece for details) that she “wouldn’t classify these as Jewish texts,” because “Judaism, the way we tend to think about it, even early Judaism, is not yet fully crystallized in this period….”

How ironical, that a biased, misleading exhibit put together by a group obviously dominated by Christians, and from which a series of “dissenting” (or shall I say: heretical?) Jewish researchers have been excluded, has nonetheless seen a massive outpouring of enthusiastic media reports, precisely during the final months of Mr. Strugnell’s life. In the case of the San Diego exhibit, charges of antisemitism have not even been broached in the press, let alone addressed by the museum’s directors. Apparently, nothing has been learned over the years. Tempted by profit, yet another scientific institution has ceded to the call of religion, and calmly ignored the problem posed by its own aiding and abetting, in the “public square,” of an outrageous monopoly perpetrated in the name of “biblical scholarship.”

Perhaps Governor Romney can take a little trip to San Diego and give a speech on the steps of the museum on the last day of the exhibit, a week after Christmas. Then the circle will close, and the nexus between politics, religiously motivated sensationalism and the abuse of trust will be clear for all to see.

Postface: Korean public gets to learn all about Dead Sea Scrolls

Some readers of this site may regret not having taken a little trip to Seoul, Korea.

But if the flight was too expensive, take a look at the website for the Korean exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which took place at the War Memorial of Korea museum in Seoul (a division of the Ministry of Defense — I won’t linger on the irony of this choice of venue for an exhibit designed to defend the “Qumran-Essene” theory of scroll origins by establishing it as a recognized fact in the public consciousness).

The exhibit was entitled “The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Birth of Christianity.” In the list of “organizers” of the exhibit, alongside Princeton University, the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, and the Hebrew University’s famed “Orion Center,” we find the equally famed Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation run by evangelical bible scholar Weston Fields; the Dominican-affiliated Ecole Biblique; the Methodist-affiliated Duke University; and (most interestingly of all) the “Franciscanum Museum of Jerusalem.” This institution is run by the Franciscan “Faculty of Biblical Sciences and Archaeology,” located (appropriately enough) in the famous “monastery of the Flagellation” in via Dolorosa, Jerusalem. Another one of the exhibit’s “organizers” was Muhlenberg College, an educational institution that describes itself as having a “continuing connection with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.” Finally, there is also a non-academic organizer identified simply as Ixlan, Inc., which appears to be this hi-tech company. If it hadn’t been for Ixlan, I might actually have concluded that this exhibit was designed to cater to a Christian audience…

Under the rubric “Qumran community and its life: Who left these scrolls in these caves?” we read: “Father de Vaux searched and found remnants of sectarians at a site called Khirbet Qumran… It seems that there was a community which lived together. They ate together and wrote manuscripts during the daytime in this site, and they seemed to sleep in caves and tents around the site… Due to their sectarian lives, most of [sic] scholars think that they might be Essenes or parts of this sect.” And then the website’s authors add a little concluding sentence, almost as a casual afterthought: “Some scholars support ideas that the scrolls were brought from Jerusalem and not produced from this site.”

Note the opposition between Father de Vaux “searching and finding,” and some other scholars coming up with “ideas,” in the plural. What a brilliant description of the current state of research in this field of studies. I also wonder who came up with that cute distinction between “most scholars” and “some scholars” at the end — a distinction declared ex cathedra by the knowledgeable exhibitors. How interesting that they gave themselves, and only themselves, the right to declare that “most” scholars agree with them. But I had almost forgotten that the whole world knows this fact — except, of course, for the researchers of the past decade whose “ideas” (unlike the “findings” of Father de Vaux) are carefully downplayed in the exhibit.

At any rate, I’m sure that Princeton University, the inhabitants of the monastery of the Flagellation, and all the other exhibit “organizers” will be very proud of their participation in this War Memorial project. Maybe we should award them a medal for “who can organize the most people in Asia after organizing a good number of them in the United States.”

A final note: a recent full-page ad in the New York Times, entitled “The Gospel and the Jews,” argues that the Jews should convert to Christianity.  Among the ad’s signatories are several… Korean evangelical organizations.

1 Comment »

  1. […] PagesJesus, Judas, and the Dead Sea Scrolls: peddling religious sensationalism in America (December 10,&n… […]

    Pingback by Peddling religious sensationalism in America « The Dead Sea Scrolls controversy in San Diego — December 12, 2007 @ 3:11 am | Reply


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